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John Glenn’s Other Legacy: A Safer World

| Dec. 13, 2016

On February 20, 1962, I was a first grader at Lincolnshire School in Toledo, Ohio. That day all of the teachers marched their classes down to an unused classroom, designated the “audio-visual room”, where an old black-and-white TV sat atop a rickety metal cart on wheels. Awaiting the launch, we saw condensate from the cryogenic liquid propellant bleeding off the Mercury Atlas booster and tried to imagine what it must be like for the man in the tiny black capsule sitting on top. Like millions of American kids, I fantasized about being an astronaut, suited up my GI Joe in a pressure suit and had him put his Mercury capsule through pitches, yaws, and rolls, but never dreamed that I would ever meet that American hero.

But thirteen years later, I did. And that meeting changed my life. In the summer of 1975, I was lucky enough to get a summer internship with my home-state senator John Glenn. He was generous with his time with the interns, inviting us to his home for a barbecue on his birthday, regaling us with stories about “the early days” of the Mercury program. That summer, astronauts and cosmonauts docked Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft in the first joint U.S.-Soviet space mission. This was the first and only mission flown by the last of the Mercury 7 astronauts to go to space, Deke Slayton, who had been grounded in 1962 by a heart irregularity. “Deke slept in the docking module so his snoring would not wake up the other astronauts,” Glenn said. I still don’t know if he was joking.

He was modest about his own flight. Wasn’t it claustrophobic sealed up in that suit and helmet and crammed into a tiny capsule for hours on end? “Well, they weeded out most of the folks susceptible to claustrophobia by then.”

My assignment was to help the Senator work on legislation to tighten up US nonproliferation controls in the aftermath of India’s 1974 test of a so-called “peaceful nuclear explosive”, which revealed weaknesses in international controls aimed at blocking the diversion of peaceful nuclear assistance to military purposes. The law that Senator Glenn sponsored became the most ambitious strengthening of U.S. nonproliferation controls in the history of the Atomic Age: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. The Act significantly ratcheted up U.S. controls beyond global norms of that time. Other nations ultimately followed suit, strengthening export control systems around the world through such mechanisms as the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.

More than four decades later, I remain fascinated by the same question: how to make nuclear energy available to provide clean energy to help people around the world, while minimizing the risk that nuclear technology and materials not fall into the hands of terrorists or enemies who would unleash its destructive potential. That summer internship and Senator Glenn’s example inspired me to pursue opportunities to tackle these issues over the next 40 years of my career. And whenever I had occasion to talk to Senator Glenn about those issues, he remained steadfast in supporting strong U.S. leadership and unwavering focus on the importance of nonproliferation.

In 2008, I had one more chance to work for Senator Glenn when I served on the staff of the Congressional Commission chaired by former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Schlesinger on America’s Strategic Posture.As a Commissioner, Senator Glenn remained focused on assuring the continued vitality of America’s nuclear deterrent while fighting proliferation around the world, all the while seeking common ground so that the commission could present a unified set of recommendations.

After a commission meeting at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, I had the opportunity to fly back to Washington with Senator Glenn. Walking with him through the terminal, it was stunning to me to see how many heads turned in recognition as this American hero, now approaching 90 years old but still fit and trim as we walked to our gate. This was 46 years after Freedom 7 flew and a decade after he became the oldest astronaut on a 1998 fight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. I wondered if he noticed. The flight attendants certainly did and tried to persuade him to sit in the first-class cabin. He politely but firmly refused, insisting on flying coach. He did not want special treatment.

He was a modest American hero, and we are all the better for his example. His hard work in the U.S. Senate did not bring another ticker-tape parade like the ones that celebrated his historic space flights in 1962 and again in 1998, but it did lead to stronger U.S. and international nonproliferation controls that have made our world safer. Let’s not forget that part of his legacy.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Poneman, Daniel.“John Glenn’s Other Legacy: A Safer World.” Medium, December 13, 2016.

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